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National DNA Data Bank, 20 years and growing

Employees at the National DNA Data Bank have been gathering and organizing DNA evidence, such as blood, cells from the mouth and sometimes hair, for more than 20 years. Credit: Serge Gouin, RCMP


A reliable witness and solid evidence are critical components of police work.

At the National DNA Data Bank (NDDB), 20 years of blood, sweat and hard work have provided investigators with access to more than 500,000 DNA profiles — evidence collected from offenders or crime scenes across Canada — to convict or exonerate suspects.

"DNA is a powerful witness to understand events," says Ron Fourney, director of science and strategic partnerships at the RCMP-run institution. "Storing these profiles has provided law enforcement and justice communities with trusted evidence and allows us to go back in time. I sort of consider it a justice time machine."

Early days

The NDDB came into being on June 30, 2000, when the DNA Identification Act became law.

"Very early on, the police and even the courts were uncertain about it (DNA evidence)," says Fourney. "I recall meeting with a lot of skepticism about the science. Would DNA ever be accepted? Now identifying and collecting genetic material from a crime scene is a common and crucial step in almost any serious police investigation."

Safeguards at the NDDB protect the integrity of the process.

"All the DNA profiles of an offender or from crime scenes are protected," says Geneviève Ménard, DNA training and collections manager at the NDDB, who notes ensuring offender privacy is paramount. "Bar codes and fingerprints are used to track the convicted offender sample at the NDDB and to link names. The NDDB doesn't know the identity of the donor or the nature of the crime scene profile."

Jeff Modler, officer-in-charge of the NDDB, says that the database relies on blood or buccal samples (cells collected from a mouth) and sometimes hair to build DNA profiles from convicted offender samples but that "it has been the hard work of employees at the NDDB that has made all the difference."

Modler adds that the program continues to be relevant and successful thanks to the partnerships with provincial and federal forensic laboratories, and with police investigators, peace officers and the criminal justice community across Canada.

A success story

One example of that co-operation and the NDDB's importance was highlighted in January 2016 after a teenage girl — on her way home from New Year's Eve celebrations — was dragged into a wooded area in Newmarket, Ont., and raped.

"This was a particularly violent crime," says Det. Sgt. Simon James, head of the Special Victims Unit at York Regional Police. "We didn't have a lot to go on and there was a lot of fear in the community."

As a result, the analysis of crime-scene DNA was fast-tracked and processed quickly at Ontario's Centre of Forensic Science (CFS), which provides analysis to police agencies in Ontario.

Jack Laird, the centre's biology section head, says turnaround times for non-urgent cases are typically in the range of 30 to 60 days, depending on the investigative value of the testing.

However, in urgent cases where public safety may be at risk, like the Newmarket assault, the CFS can analyze and return DNA results, including NDDB search results, within as little as 24 hours.

"We got a match and made an arrest a week later," says James. "We had hundreds of tips that we would have looked into, it would have been like chasing a ghost."

The suspect, who eventually pleaded guilty to the Newmarket sexual assault, had his DNA profile in the NDDB following a 2005 assault conviction.

Laird calls the NDDB's work a game changer in Canadian criminal investigations.

"The (NDDB's) creation 20 years ago has had the biggest impact on using the work we do to connect the dots on investigations, identifying remains or missing persons," says Laird.

"Our challenge (in the labs) will always be to do things faster, but the more profiles we get added to the NDDB, the more opportunity we have to get matches and clues to solve more crimes."

NDDB by the numbers

  • Total number of DNA profiles in the Convicted Offender Index: 402,960
  • Total number of DNA profiles in the Crime Scene Index (CSI): 175,596
  • Total number of hits reported: 70,203
  • Average number of hits made daily: 31
  • Oldest crime for which a DNA profile is contained in the CSI: 1964
  • Highest number of hits to a single convicted offender DNA profile: 63
  • Oldest case assisted through a match made by the NDDB: 1976 homicide in British Columbia
  • Number of identical twin DNA profiles: 375
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